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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Arizona Strip: Snap Point

What's bumpy, two feet shy of the width of an F250 and goes screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee? The road in to Snap Point, that's what. If you'd like to go, just look for the traces of Island Blue paint coating the branches along the game trail that passes for a road to Snap Point.

The Mog trundles it's way through the pines to the turnoff towards Snap Point.

We left Twin Point after a lazy morning wandering around and trying not to fall off the edge of the canyon. The foliage is pretty dense there, and sometimes you don't know you're on the cliffside until you step through the branches. You develop of sense of space pretty quickly once you do that a few times.  You start to pay more attention to the breeze, and the wind noises; it's always more breezy and the tone changes when you stand next to a giant void.

We got some good photos and congratulated each other on having the place to ourselves. It was a long drive, but having your own private parking space on the edge of the Grand Canyon is priceless.

We packed up and compared notes on our maps and GPS units before we set off. Snap Point is marked on the BLM Arizona Strip maps, but there is no official road drawn there. We knew there was one, because you could make out the trace outlines on Google Earth, it was a matter of turning down the right path once we got close. Craig and Rasa, our trusty rally driver friends, would lead the way while looking for the GPS waypoint they marked on their map.

A snapdragon-like flower that grew in abundance on the mesas above the North Rim.

We chose Snap Point because it looked like a great place to camp, and because of it's proximity to a plane crash that Craig was interested in finding. In 1972, an F111A was doing a training exercise over the Grand Canyon when things went sideways. Mistakes were made, and the student and trainer pilots had to eject. This particular plane was set up so ejection isn't the typical seat that pops out of the plane you see in the movies, but the entire cockpit module. They were able to safely separate from the rest of the plane, and as the body went down into the canyon and slammed into one of the walls, the cockpit parachuted "gently" (as gently as something like that can go) down onto a small plateau jutting out about a quarter of the way down into the canyon. From this precarious perch, they teetered and slid a few hundred feet more until the capsule settled on it's roof. They were injured, but were able to get out of the thing and were rescued, a happy ending that, unfortunately, doesn't come often with these crashes. This would be enough to end my career as a pilot and possibly a passenger, but I doubt that kept these two from flying again.

The F111A (photo credit:
Anyway, as we approached the turn off, things were looking pretty good. Nice dense forest cover of juniper, sage and cactus, all blooming in the May sun. Picture perfect. Then we turned onto the road.

I don't think the road was very well traveled by the looks of things. And all the extra rain Arizona had received over the winter was really putting a boost into the foliage growth. The farther we went, the closer the bushes and trees got to the truck, until the occasional low hanging tree branch bumping along the camper turned into a continuous screeeeeeeeee of brush scratching it's way down our flanks. This was only interrupted by the smacking of larger tree branches as they smashed into the camper rails. Mark's intermittent expletive squeezed out through gritted teeth soon became one long string of profanity. Honestly, I'm pretty impressed that he was able put together such a creative array of vulgarity and drive with such skill at the same time. And they say men can't multi-task.

Our glamorous camp on Snap Point

After three long, paint altering miles, we finally arrived at our camp spot. To look at it, you wouldn't be impressed. It was a clearing in the juniper just big enough to fit all three vehicles with a giant fire ring in the middle in which someone had left a big wooden pallet. It was all slightly wet from the recent rains, and there was no view to speak of. Not the Grand Canyon Awesome that we had quickly become accustomed to. After the painful experience we had just been through though, none of us wanted to face that road again so we settled in and made camp. An afternoon thunderstorm blew over and pelted us with a cold rain and hail, making the soft dirt turn to a sticky mud. It was hard to convince ourselves that this place was worth it.

The rain falls mainly on the plain. And sometimes turns to hail. And occasionally turns to snow.

Rasa and Craig had gone ahead to scout the way down to the mesa top below, trying to find the closest place to launch the plane wreck expedition the next day. Soon they joined us, having added their silver to our blue on the road bushes. We all walked up the road just a few more feet (watching the skies for any errant lightning bolts) and, ahhhhhhh, there it was. Another gorgeous perch, this one overlooking a large mesa below our mesa top, the bright red soil and rock of the cliff sides interlaced with white and yellow-tinged stripes. Parts of the cliff face had been eroded into giant hoodoos reminiscent of Bryce Canyon.

The hoodoo-like formations of Snap Point

The mesa top below us was green with recent growth from the rains. The low sun angled itself under the clouds that afternoon and made everything glow richly. We all dragged our camp chairs to the edge to enjoy the best kind of show there is.

It was worth it after all.

Once the weather cleared it was vibrant from the soaking it received.

The next day we rode along with Craig and Rasa down to our hiking launch spot. We passed an old ranch cabin they had seen the day before and I hopped out to take photos and peek inside. One step out of the truck and...rattlesnake! A big fat rattler was sunning himself right on the "porch" of the cabin.  He crawled under the pallet that served as the front step after flicking his tongue at us. No one felt the need to go inside after that so we settled for outdoor shots, keeping our feet well away from the base of the cabin.

The rattlesnake that greeted us at the door of the cabin.
Mark pointing where Mr. Snake went (lurking just beneath the slats of the pallet)
The cabin was decorated appropriately
The road was paved with wildflowers. Luckily, our high clearance vehicles left them intact for others to enjoy.
Deer on the road. Hope they didn't see the decorations on the cabin...
The view back up toward our campsite on the upper mesa.

We hiked across beautiful cactus gardens and artfully arranged rocks (why can't I do this as well in my own yard? It's hard to beat Mother Nature's sense of style) right to the edge of the canyon. We looked down and realized this was a much longer and more technical hike than we were prepared for. In addition, huge clouds were gathering on the horizon, threatening to turn this trip into another rescue mission. Craig and Mark analyzed the possible routes down to the site, then wisely decided this would have to be saved for another day with an earlier start. By the time we made it back to the truck the clouds had moved overhead and you could see the diagonal streaks in the sky over the mesa indicating distant rain. Good call guys.

Nature's composition, Craig and Mark in the background mulling their options. Note the clouds in the distance.

Back at camp, the rain started looking funny, kind of floaty, was this...snow? We all gathered in the Mog for cocktails waiting for the squall to be over. Two hours and several beers later, the snow stopped falling and we all trekked through the mud to the overlook. Still beautiful. Damned cold, but beautiful all the same.
All layers were needed for this chilly spot on the rim.

These are the things I've learned after traveling in the backcountry of Arizona:
  • You can't plan for the weather, but you can and should pack for anything from excessive heat to snow.
  • You can't control the roads, but you can decide for yourself what you're willing to drive over and through.
  • You can't guarantee a good time, but surround yourself with the right people and things will turn out fine.
Thanks guys. We had a hell of a trip.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Arizona Strip: Twin Point and the Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse

The view from Twin Point, Grand Canyon National Park

The Tacoma flew by in a spray of gravel, leaving us quite literally in the dust. Trying to follow the Flying Taco was proving to be a challenge; after five minutes we couldn't even locate the dust cloud that might indicate which direction they took on these web-like roads. We tried the radio; no dice, too far away already. In the end we had to resort to methods that had less to do with electronic gadgetry and more to do with good old fashioned tracking: fresh tire tracks, splashed mud puddles, and a bit of gut instinct were guiding us now.

We were on our way to Twin Point via a little used series of farm roads, taking a "short cut" Craig, driver of said Flying Taco, had mapped on his GPS. While it wasn't imperative we take the exact same route, it was important we didn't stray too far off the path; we only had enough gas to get us 300 miles, and we were only two days into a five day trip. With no cell coverage and out of radio range, if we got stranded it might take a while for someone to stumble across us. But I'm sure Craig might notice we weren't behind him and circle back for us. At some point.

Ron and Mark look down at the valley below from Mt. Trumbull Road.

We had pulled away from the Nampaweap Rock Art site that morning with our friend Ron and driven the scenic road over Mount Trumbull. Following County Road 5, we passed an old sawmill site, a few ranches, some hiking trailheads, and finally made our way down a slightly terrifying road to the valley below, ending up at the old Mt. Trumbull Schoolhouse. There we had some lunch and waited for the rest of our party to show up, playing on the swings and teeter totters, ringing the school bell, and poking around the old farm equipment that is displayed there.

Click the photo for more info.

Mt. Trumbull school served the homesteader kids that grew up in this remote corner of Arizona. Remarkably, almost everyone who settled in this area was one big extended family. The roster posted in the school was a mile long list of Bundys (this area is known as Bundyville). Given the location, and the fact that they were cattle ranchers, we couldn't help but wonder if a certain Cliven Bundy was any relation to these folks. We didn't see his name on the wall, but it's possible he's from a different Bundy branch of that particular tree.

The crossroads sign, pointing the way to Bundys
Roy & Doretta's Place
The school sits at the crossroads of County Rd. 5, 257 and BLM 1018

Mount Trumbull Schoolhouse was built in 1918, educating all the little Bundys until it closed in 1966 for lack of students. It stood empty for years until July of 2000, when vandals burned it to the ground. It had become such an institution (sorry) in the area, that the Bundy decendents got together with the BLM and other interested parties and started a fundraiser to rebuild it. The schoolhouse is open once again to visitors, still stocked with a few desks, old schoolbooks, some photos from it's glory days, and a nice relief map of the surrounding area set up on a table in the middle. It's a testament to trust in our fellow man that it sits open to the public 24 hrs a day with no attendant, the only protection a sign on the front asking that you leave it as you found it for all to enjoy. Take that, you vandals!

The old school bell still works
An old farm truck sits in the school yard.
Mark tries his best with his unruly class of overlanders.
The swings still work too.
Clouds float by as reflected in the school windows.
A nice covered picnic area, as seen through the back window of the old truck.
(Thanks for the shade cover Eagle Scout Bundy!)
Pointing back the way we came in.

From here, our friend Ron opted to take a more roundabout route to Twin Point, longer in distance, but easier on his vehicle. He wasn't worried about fuel consumption; his diesel Touareg had a much better range than our gas guzzling V10. We and Craig and Rasa (in the Flying Taco), Ryan and LeeWhay (in their Unimog) were taking this "shortcut" to save on fuel, and to add to the four wheeling factor of the trip. And, as it happened, to our skills as trackers.

Over cattle pastures, through multiple farm gates (always close them behind you, we don't want to piss off the ranchers), and over the rocky hills and small streams of Poverty Mountain. We ended up at the confluence of County Roads 103 and 1018, where our friend Ron was waiting for us patiently, having gotten there a good half hour before us.

Short doesn't always mean quicker.

Ron studies the map and learns about the flora and fauna while patiently waiting for all of us to catch up.

A yucca in bloom

From this point the road was clearly marked so it wasn't important that we keep in contact. The Flying Taco took flight and the rest of us trundled along behind, fully expecting not to catch up with them until we arrived at our campsite for the night. This is why we were all surprised to see Craig and Rasa stopped on the side of the road not far from the turnoff from County Road 103. They were out of the vehicle staring at the driver side rear tire. It could only mean one thing: flat tire.

There are inherent risks to rally driving on these remote roads: sharp rocks, overgrown bushes, fallen tree branches. Not sure which it was, but something put a good slice in the sidewall of their tire. What's a proper Overlanding adventurer to do? Why fix it right there on the side of the road, that's what.

Craig, with a bit of support from the crew, patched the tire without taking it off the truck, using four large plugs and a whole lot of adhesive. It wasn't pretty, but once it was re-inflated and carefully inspected for hissing noises (in the time honored scientific way: ear to the tire) he was back on the road, flying over the bumps and skidding around the corners with abandon.

Hmmm. Looks like it might be flat.
Craig preps the tire and gets the plugs out. How many do you think it'll need?
Mark assists Craig, holding the plugs that are already in place to make sure placing the next one doesn't poke the others into the hole.

The supervisors were there to make helpful comments and lend support only.
They did a fine job.
Looks like four should do it. Let's air it up and see.
Onboard compressors are a beautiful thing.
At this point, the park staff has given up on noting the mileage. If you have to ask, you shouldn't be here.
(FYI, from this point it was about 12 miles to Twin Point)

We arrived at Twin Point overlook just in time for sunset. The road in was pretty easy, with the exception of the narrow, scratchy foliage that crowded the edges, and a few hard turns that required a little "Austin Powers" maneuvers to negotiate for the two larger vehicles in the group. We've gotten so many "desert pinstripes" over the years we weren't too worried about a few scratches, but we're always careful to avoid any dings in the body of the truck.

The first thing to greet us at the campsite was this friendly guy.
The view was what you'd expect from a campsite on the edge of the Grand Canyon at sunset. Absolutely gorgeous.

It would be tiring if it wasn't so gosh darn beautiful.

How ridiculously perfect is this day? Even the juniper were blooming.

Don't get too close to the edge; these rocks were pretty loose.
The view across the canyon.

Little cactus garden

Everything seemed to be in bloom up there

Yucca plants everywhere

The view from our campsite at Twin Point.

We lingered over breakfast in the sun, admiring our perch above the canyon and generally hanging our mouths open in awe. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but we were on a mission today: Get to Snap Point and find an airplane wreck in the canyon below.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Arizona Strip: Toroweap and Nampaweap Rock Art Site

A thunderstorm brewing over the Grand Canyon, as viewed from the Toroweap Campground.

It's apparently my destiny to learn the same lessons over and over and over...
  1. The act of packing sunscreen, even SPF 50, does not keep me from getting sunburned unless I actually apply it.
  2. Drinking an iced espresso at 4:00pm will result in lying awake until 4:00am.
  3. The Grand Canyon, no matter the viewpoint or time of day, is always spectacular.
I would prefer not to repeat lessons 1 and 2 ever again (hey, it's possible), but I wouldn't mind rediscovering the last one every year for the rest of my life.

The intimate camping accommodations at Overland Expo West, 2017
We spent a long weekend enjoying Overland Expo West in Flagstaff Arizona, camping alongside about 7,000 other outdoor enthusiasts at the new venue site. Fort Tuthill County Park was the perfect place to hold this type of event: close enough to town to run in if you forgot something, camping under trees (instead of the dust bowl/mud pit at Mormon Lake), and a large area for vendors to show off the latest equipment you didn't know you needed. Mark took classes during the day while I sat in on presentations, drank espresso drinks and basked in the sun (see lessons 1 & 2 above).

Mark and Ryan toasting to another Overland together.
Mark, in his natural habitat.

It was fun, but I was more than ready to hit the road on Monday morning. I'm not much for crowds, and after camping four nights in a row packed in with so many people, I had hit my limit. We had made arrangements to meet up with our buddies later that day, so we took off early with our friend Mel and had our traditional breakfast at Macys Coffeehouse in Flagstaff. Breakfast burritos, waffles and a giant sticky bun were exactly what we wanted, blissfully enjoyed in the relative quiet of this sorta new-age/kinda hippy place. Unfortunately, Mel couldn't join us this year on our post-Expo trip, so we had to say goodbye as he headed back to California and we took off for the nearest grocery store for supplies.
It's highly recommended to air down before you take on these roads. On our last trip, two of the four vehicles ended up with flat tires from the sharp rocks. The long distance also tempts one to go a wee bit faster than 35mph.

We were headed back to Toroweap Overlook and campground on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Our friend had scored a reservation at the group site that night and we were thrilled to go back, it being one of the most beautiful campgrounds we've ever visited. Wrangling four vehicles of various sizes and speeds had proven too difficult to coordinate a convoy, so we had all agreed to keep in touch and meet wherever we could along the way. It was a great plan, taking pressure off those of us who are early birds and those that need a bit more time to gather themselves in the morning. Mark and I were able to stop and take some photos, and visit the Navajo bridge near Lee's Ferry without feeling like we were holding anyone up.

To get an idea of how big the Arizona Strip is, and just how few developed places there are inside it, here's a map. What you can't see is the extensive system of dirt roads that wind around the place, running out to the edge of the Grand Canyon and up into the mountains to the north. We could have spent two months out there and not seen everything. If only we had brought a fuel tanker truck along with us.

Our plan for the week was to explore the Arizona Strip, which encompasses the northwestern corner of the state and includes the Grand Canyon/Parashant National Monument, and Grand Canyon National Park's North Rim, along with various national monuments and BLM wilderness areas.  It's a huge area, and our planned route would take us over almost 300 miles of dirt roads with no access to services. Since our truck's range is 230 miles with it's stock tank, we would be relying on our three 5 gallon jerry cans to get us out. We stopped in Fredonia, the last town before heading off-road, and filled those suckers to the tippy top.

Didn't look too inclement...
oh, wait...
The long road to Toroweap was particularly beautiful this year, after a winter of heavy rains made the desert bloom.

The Toroweap Overlook is sixty miles down a dirt road; the first fifty or so you could make in the family car (providing you brought a spare or two in case of blow outs) but the last ten miles would be almost impossible without high clearance and four wheel drive. It's a spectacular view though, and worth the trip. Things had changed since our last visit to this spot. The Tuweep campground is now available by reservation only, having been first come, first served previously. It kind of makes sense, I can only imagine the disappointment of driving all the way out there to find the campground full. A ranger is stationed there at the Monument and Grand Canyon National Park boundary. It must get lonely, because he was quite talkative when we checked in with him. He didn't seem too concerned about reservations, more so about the news and weather. I guess not that many people are committed enough to travel so far when there's a perfectly nice paved road to an overlook at the North and South Rims of the park (not to mention the lodge and gift shop there). This campground is pretty bare bones: you have to haul in your own water and haul out your own trash. There are some pretty nifty composting toilets though, so no worries in that department.

This sign should be posted on every public restroom in the country.
Not that it would help.

We cruised into the campground and found our friend Ron's car waiting for us. We assumed Ron would turn up eventually, so we busied ourselves with the campground dance, slowly driving back and forth trying to find the flattest spot we could on the pock-marked sandstone surface. Soon enough, all four vehicles were there, and eventually Ron walked in from a hike to the Toroweap Overlook.

Toroweap Group Camp, after a passing shower.
The rain and hail made an interesting pattern on the (formerly) blue paint on the truck.

This was the first time we had seen Ron since last year's White Rim experience. It was a melancholy trip for him; his VW Touareg was slated for the crusher soon, it being one of the German diesel-cheating-debacle vehicles. It would be the last big trip for his beloved car before turning it in for the rebate, and his sorrow showed every time it came up in conversation. A lot of our campfire discussions revolved around what vehicle he would be getting to replace it. (Note to self: never (even accidentally) call his car a Passat. I believe I lost any respect he may have had for me with that slip up.)

The Toroweap Plateau was green and lush this year.
Cactus were in full bloom.

Cactus garden on the plateau.

The passing rain clouds broke for some dramatic sunset shots.

The sheer 3000' drop off at Toroweap is a little unnerving. If you look closely, you can see Mark standing on the edge.

A rare photo of Mark and I, together in one shot. Thanks Ron!
Two boats approaching the Lava Falls area (around the corner)

A view toward Lava Falls and the same two boats. Apparently it's a pretty hairy rapids section for rafters.
Ron contemplates an agave flower stalk on our walk back to the Toroweap campground.

We had a great time posing on the edge of the 3000' drop at the overlook, taking photos at sunset after a passing shower/hail storm went through. The next morning we took some more pictures before heading off toward Twin Point. We took off a bit early with Ron so we could stop in at the Nampaweap Rock Art site.

Nampaweap is located about three miles from the turnoff on Mt. Trumbull Road, about seven miles back up the road from Toroweap Overlook. A short ride down a side road leads to a small dirt parking lot surrounded by a barbed wire fence. This area is still used for cattle grazing, and the fence keeps the cows from destroying the site. A half mile trail leads to a jumbled pile of volcanic basalt, blackened with desert varnish and decorated with hundreds of petroglyphs formed by the Southern Paiute tribe.
An informative sign about the area. It was nice to see the park put so much effort into this remote area.
At first it just looks like a jumble of rocks.

Closer examination reveals petroglyphs.
and more...
and more.
Mark and I have been known to hike many miles to find petroglyphs and have come close to dehydration a few times trying to find the more elusive ones. These were conveniently located on a well worn path, with signs pointing the way. It's a miracle they were as intact as they were; we've seen some sites that have been destroyed by people trying to steal them, touching them (skin oils destroy them), making rubbings (which slowly wear them off), and even spray painting over them with their own "witty" sayings. I think perhaps the miles of rough road and the hike itself keep most people from going out there.

If you find yourself in the area, it's definitely worth the side trip. A nice place to get out, stretch your legs and wear off the "bumpy road butt" that builds after a few hours of off-road travel. It was especially nice, considering what lay ahead; we were about thirty miles of rough road away from our next destination: Twin Point.

A rainbow forms after a thunderstorm, on Grand Canyon National Park's Toroweap Plateau.